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The shrill sound cut through the night.
It reached deep into Sara Martin's subconscious, jerking her from sleep, vanquishing her dream, dissipating like smoke on the wind. Angrily, she pushed upright, grabbing the phone.
The line was silent, except for the soft hiss that meant someone was there.
"Hello?" She wasn't certain why she asked again. He never answered. Just waited, listening. As if he knew what he was interrupting-but that was impossible. With a release of breath, she slammed the receiver into the cradle, dismissing the prank. It didn't matter.
Moonlight, filtering through the curtains, cast intricate shadows across the room, and she watched as they danced across the ceiling. Closing her eyes, she tried to recapture the dream, but as always it was illusive, coming only when it chose, never on demand.
Tears welled, and she pushed them away. Time, it seemed, did not heal wounds. It only left them to fester, the memory of all that was good tantalizing in its obscurity. Here in the dark, reality seemed a cruel joke. A punishment for a crime she'd never committed.
Still fighting tears, she reached for the lamp, and with the flick of a switch banished the shadows back into the night. Reflexively, she turned, her eyes searching the pillow next to hers. Wanting to find an indentation, a scent. Anything.
She traced the contours of the pillow, letting her imagination remember other times. Better times. But they were gone, along with her husband and son. Forever. Squeezing her eyes shut, she rolled over, fighting for control.
It was always worse at night.
Maybe it would be best if she'd just stop dreaming. At least that way the past would stay where it was supposed to be. But even as she had the thought, she knew she didn't mean it. The dreams were all she had left.
The smell was the first thing he noticed, and it wasn't as if he were new to crime scenes. But this one was bad. He could tell just from the sickly sweet stench of decaying flesh. With a sigh, Eric D'Angelo pushed past the crowd of homeless people and ducked under the yellow tape, steeling himself for the task at hand.
No matter how many murder scenes he worked, it was always one too many.
"Wondered if you were going to grace us with your presence." Tony Haskins ambled over as if it were Sunday at the park. His partner's girth and slow gait hid an astute mind and a quick wit.
"I was across town, and there were a few things I had to handle before I could leave."
"Right." Haskins' eyebrows rose, not missing a beat. "Anyone I know?"
"No." The single word brooked no further discussion. "So what have we got here?"
"Dead female. Caucasian. Looks to be somewhere between sixteen and twenty, and based on the clothing, I'd say she was a little bit more than just the kid next door." Tony shifted so that Eric could see the body.
A woman was sprawled beside a Dumpster, refuse scattered around her like a picture frame. Even without Tony's caustic comment, he'd have guessed at her profession. The gold lamé halter combined with the hiphugging skirt could have been considered chic, if it weren't for the fact that they were about two sizes too small. A smear of lipstick marred one cheek, blood staining the other, the two reds at odds with each other, the effect garish.
"She was left like this?" Eric frowned, trying to visualize the situation.
"No." Tony shook his head. "The guy over there found her. Evidently he pulled her out of the Dumpster to get at the stuff underneath, and then couldn't be bothered to call it in."
"Or wasn't able to tell the living from the dead." Eric shot a look at the old geezer. Between the grime and the layers of clothing, it was hard to tell what he really looked like, but the vacant gaze was apparent even from here. He'd seen it a hundred times over the years.
"Well, fortunately for us, he wasn't the only one digging in the garbage." Tony nodded toward a woman sitting on a crate, huddled over a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "She's the one who called. From over there."
Eric looked across the alley to the open door of a club, light slashing across the pavement like a rip in the asphalt. "How long since she called it in?"
"A couple of hours. Took the uniforms a little while to locate her."
"So what else do we know about the vic?" Eric walked over to the body, his seasoned mind already absorbing details.
"Not much. There's no I.D., although they haven't finished searching the Dumpster. There's no sign of struggle and very little blood. Which isn't consistent with her wounds. This woman was stabbed repeatedly, and unless I've missed something, that isn't easy to accomplish without leaving one hell of a mess."
D'Angelo bent down for a closer look. "There's blood all over the body, but most of it's dried." He frowned, reaching out to carefully touch her cheek. "Rigor's set in. And the smell alone indicates she's been dead more than a few hours."
"Wouldn't be impossible for her to have been in the Dumpster awhile."
"Not impossible." Claire Dennison joined them, her eyes narrowed in thought. Claire was a forensic specialist-a damn good one-and Eric was glad she'd responded to the call. "But not the case here. There's no blood in the Dumpster either. And even without an autopsy, it's fairly clear she bled out."
"So where's the blood?" Eric stood up, his gaze meeting hers.
"Could be anywhere." Claire studied the body with the cool eyes of a professional. "If we're lucky we'll find something to tie her to the killer. If not, maybe a fiber or two will at least give us a location."
Eric nodded, turning his attention to Tony. "Why were we called in?" They were technically off duty, and under normal circumstances, the murder should have fallen to someone else.
"The woman was raped."
"Kind of hard to tell with a hooker, isn't it?"
"Not when someone leaves their bat behind." Tony tipped his head toward a bloody piece of wood protruding beneath the skirt.
"Jesus." Eric forced his gaze away from the body, frowning at his partner.
"It gets worse. The guy took her fingers."
His eyes were automatically drawn to the hand folded against her breast. The lamé hid part of it, but now that he was looking-really looking-he could see that all five fingers had been cut off.
A quick glance at her other hand confirmed that it too had been altered.
"Son of a bitch." He swallowed a mouthful of bile, his gaze locking with Tony's. "He's back."
The soft sound of music filled the air, and Sara let the notes wash over her, the rhythm carrying away some of her tension. Taking a sip from her wineglass, she let the dark, smoky taste of merlot run down the back of her throat. Drinking alone was a dangerous luxury.
But, tonight, she needed it.
She took another sip, and stared at the phone. It would be so simple to pick it up, to call Ryan or Molly. But that would mean confessing her state of mind and, to be honest, she wasn't certain she had the energy. Besides, she was a firm believer in maintaining a stiff upper lip. A throwback to her days in foster care.
Never let 'em see you sweat.
She smiled despite herself. The music and the wine were working, the shadows that haunted her life withdrawing. She looked around the living room, pleased with the soft colors and fashionable antiques. Her home was almost a diametric opposite to the house she and Tom had shared.
Tom had loved the sleek and modern. An architect, he delighted in simplicity. Form and line. Their house had been beautiful. Perched on a cliff, soaring above the treetops, it had been like living in a fantasy of glass and light. After the accident, the house had become a horrifying symbol for all she'd lost.
So she'd sold it, and moved to the center of Austin. As far away from the hills as she could get without leaving the city altogether. The Hyde Park Victorian was a far cry from Tom's designs, but it suited her somehow. And with time she'd actually grown to love it. There was something cathartic in making a place for herself. Almost as if the walls themselves had the power to heal her.
The doorbell rang, breaking her reverie. Frowning, she set the wineglass down, wondering who could possibly be visiting so late. Cautiously approaching the door, she grabbed an umbrella from the stand, and stood on tiptoe to peer through the peephole.
Releasing a breath, she replaced the umbrella and unlocked the door, swinging it open. "Damn it, Ryan, you scared me half to death. It's the middle of the night."
Ryan Greene smiled, his eyes crinkling with the gesture. "Sorry. I was on my way home and saw the light."
Sara moved away from the door, gesturing for him to come in. "It's awfully late to be working. Looming deadline?"
"No." He shrugged sheepishly. "Actually, I was following up on a story."
Ryan was the editor in chief of Texas Today, a weekly magazine with a large regional reader base. But he'd never been able to totally give up the thrill of chasing a lead.
Case in point.
"So what's the story?"
He crossed over to the wine bottle and poured himself a glass. "There's been another murder."
A chill chased down her spine. "The same guy?"
"They're not saying. There's a press conference scheduled for tomorrow. Until then, we won't know anything for sure. But the M.O. is similar. The main difference seems to be that the body was left in a trash bin."
"Downtown. In an alley behind a bar."
The press had been consumed with the brutal murders of two prostitutes over the last eighteen months. Speculation was that the deaths were the work of the same man. But two cases weren't enough to establish a pattern. Three, on the other hand . .
"Were you there?"
"Yeah." His eyes darkened, his features harsh. "It wasn't a pretty picture."
"You should have called me. I could have gotten some shots." Although she didn't normally photograph murder scenes, she'd done it several times over the years. Usually when she was nearby or there wasn't anyone else available.
Ryan's gaze met hers, his expression softening. "I wouldn't subject you to that. Considering all that you've been through, I didn't think it was appropriate. Besides, I can pull pictures off the wires." He sat down beside her on the couch. "How was your date?"
"Nothing to write home about. I still can't believe Molly set me up."
"She was just trying to help."
"I know. And I appreciate it. But blind dates have never been my forte, especially now."
"Then maybe it's just as well it didn't work out." He shrugged, taking a sip of wine, studying her over the rim of his glass. "Maybe you need more time."
"That's the first time you've said that. I thought you were a staunch member of the Sara-should-move-on club."
"I am." He frowned, his eyes reflecting concern. "But that doesn't mean I think you should try to accomplish it all in one day, or with the wrong person."
"I know. It's just some days it's harder than others."
"Which explains the Merlot at midnight. Look, Sara, I know you miss them. But sooner or later you're going to have to let go of the past."
"I know that. I do. It's just that I can't." She rubbed the gold of her wedding ring, wishing it were a magic lamp. A way to change time. To change fate.
His eyes flashed regret. "I didn't mean to push."
"It's okay. Your heart's in the right place." She stood up, smothering a yawn. The wine had done its job.
"You're tired." Ryan stood up, too, still looking uncertain. "I should go."
She reached up to lay a hand on his cheek. "Thanks for watching out for me."
He covered her hand with his. "That's what friends are for, Sara."
She stepped back, embarrassed suddenly. She wasn't usually given to outbursts of emotion. In fact she prided herself on maintaining control. It's just that sometimes it was so damn hard. "You want me to try and get some photos at the press conference tomorrow?" She walked with him toward the door, firmly steering the conversation back to business.
He shook his head. "I already called Satchel. But I do still need you at the mayor's office. He's not an easy man to photograph, and I'm counting on you to pull the best out of him."
"I'll do what I can."
"That's my girl." He walked out onto the porch. "Try and get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
Nodding, she lifted a hand to wave, then shut the door, throwing the dead bolt. Turning around to face the empty room, her eyes were drawn to a picture on the wall. Tom and Charlie smiled out at her from the frame and her heart twisted with longing.
Reaching over she traced first her husband's face, then her son's, her mind conjuring the feel of Charlie's baby-soft skin, the smell of Tom's aftershave. Ryan was right, it was time to move on. Time to make a new life. But truth be told, she simply didn't know how.
Eric D'Angelo stared down at the pictures on his kitchen table. He'd arranged them side by side so that he could examine each victim in context with the others, hoping that one of them at least would have something to tell him.
But so far the ladies were being stubbornly silent. The differences between the three women were as numerous as the similarities. Location had varied, although, until the last one, the body had always been found at the site of the murder. One was a confirmed prostitute, and another had been known to sell her body when she ran out of money for liquor and drugs. The third looked like a member of the same sisterhood, although the fact had not yet been confirmed.
None of the ladies were exactly cream of the crop. But that didn't mean they'd deserved to die. Not like this. Hell, not at all. He picked up the picture of the first victim. Laurel Henry was well over thirty, and she'd obviously lived a hard life. Her cheeks were pockmarked, and a tiny scar ran from the corner of her mouth down her chin.
She had a rap sheet a mile long. Everything from solicitation to petty larceny. Like the other two, she'd been raped repeatedly, then stabbed and left to bleed out.
She was also missing her ears.
His stomach twisted with revulsion. He saw the results of humanity's inhumanity every day, but something like this still had the power to shake him.